What a grand colossal mess Tarsem Singh has foisted upon us: the kind you stare at in amazed wonderment, disbelieving that such a thing could happen. Immortals’ beauty is undeniable -- rendered with the stunning prowess of a true artist – but sits atop an incoherent hash of pretense and bloodletting. It has all the makings of a camp classic, as its oversized art direction renders it compulsively watchable and its gobbling turkey of a script leaves you hard-pressed to articulate the simplest basics of what you’ve just seen.
Singh clearly draws his inspiration from Clash of the Titans, and his eager desire to conjure Greek mythology probably found some ready backers to the project. The fundaments of a grand notion appear here and there, meditating on man’s need for gods to worship and how divine conflicts spill over into the mortal realm. Harness that to a good story, and you’re cooking with gas. But Singh, having articulated the barest hints of an idea, was apparently set upon by a gang of drunken Australian sailors, and then staggered home to burble the rest of it into a tape recorder while trying not to pass out from the concussion. That’s how the film plays at least: pasted together like shredded office files in the mad hope that the director’s cinematic eye will magically transform it all.
No such luck. Twelve hours after the screening, I’m still hard-pressed to deliver any but the most basic ideas of the plot. It’s loosely based on the myth of Theseus (Henry Cavill), who battled the Minotaur and eventually ruled as king of Athens. Singh has taken considerable liberties with the tale, and that’s cool… it the results were something worth watching. Instead, it features the barest frames of a good vs. evil conflict crippled by hideous dialogue and nonsensical scene placement that pays derisive lip service to the notion of storytelling.
It goes a little something like this: it the beginning of time, the gods warred against the titans and banished them to the realm of Tartarus. The evil King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) seeks a magic bow that can free the Titans from their imprisonment and avenge himself on the gods for various undisclosed sins. Theseus stands in his way, as does a virginal oracle (Freida Pinto) haunted by visions of apocalypse. That’s all to be expected, of course, but Immortals insists on cluttering it up with unwieldy details… not because of some organic necessity, but seemingly on a whim. Supporting characters arrive, announce their motivations, and then hang around to be tortured or killed in some suitably grisly fashion. Theseus’s destiny is hinted at, but never brought to fruition, and Cavill’s passive screen presence makes him practically transparent. And the gods themselves make fretful appearances, intent on stopping Hyperion from reaching the bow but forbidden from interfering.
That last point bears further discussion. Getting the gods involved is a bad move from a narrative standpoint, since they can basically wave their hands and make anything they wish come to pass. Singh gets around it with the “we can’t get involved” milksop, then studiously ignores it whenever he needs a cool slow-motion fight sequence. Much is made of the gods’ “transgressions” when they step in, but the rule is applied haphazardly and constantly reiterates the point that Theseus has no real impetus of his own. Hyperion, the ostensible villain, at least possesses his own motives, leading us to wonder idly whether we might not be backing the wrong horse.
Of course, that presumes a level of intellectual discourse for a film that’s basically happy mashing up crayons on the floor. While Immortals strives for lofty ideas about fate and free will, it hasn’t the first clue how to deliver them. Most of the time, we’re left debating who can mumble their lines the loudest (Rourke wins), who can perform the nastiest evisceration (Rourke wins), who can appear to take the proceedings seriously while secretly spending his paycheck in his head (Rourke wins), and who can wear the snazziest hat (Rourke wins by a country mile).
Singh has the landscape down pat, with brilliant golds and reds punctuating gorgeous CGI cliffs. His raw visual sense is unparalleled, and as a series of unconnected shots, he knows how to deliver this material with flair. But anyone who owns a decent game console has seen the same thing, and in this day and age, sexy art direction holds little currency. The remainder of Immortals is a flat-out disaster, eagerly aping films like Clash and 300 without the barest hint of their not-exactly-Shakespearean narratives. Singh has the instincts of a genius, with the likes of The Cell and The Fall contributing one-of-a-kind visions to the annals of cinema. Immortals plays a like a gag reel of those earlier films; sadly, not even its creator is in on the joke.